Feminist Book Recommendations

16 09 2009

I’ve just written a post over on my book blog with three feminist book recommendations.  Check it out if you’re interested!

Equating Confidence with Sexy Clothing

27 06 2009

I recently read Ariel Levy’s fabulous Female Chauvinist Pigs for the first time, and highly recommend it.  One point that really stuck out for me is that women often subtly put down other women for not dressing in a sexy, revealing manner and in doing so cite lack of self-confidence.  Some women who show a lot of skin for whatever reason feel that this not only makes them feel confident or is a product of their confidence, but that others who don’t dress the same way must not be confident, or must be disparaging of their looks.  I have no problem with women feeling sexy when they put on a short skirt or a low-cut top, but I do think something’s going on when a woman’s assumption is that this is the only way to show self-confidence.  Levy does a great job at pointing out how this kind of argument can be used to draw women towards everything from Girls Gone Wild cameos to unwanted sexual experiences.  

Surely, women can hide behind baggy or “unattractive” clothing.  I did that a lot as a kid and as a teenager, and in fact I was not self confident.  One of the ways I showed my self-confidence and comfort with boys, in turn, was to start dressing “sexier,” to start showing off my breasts and legs.  But I eventually found that for me, that clothing actually didn’t really make me feel sexy.  It did in a way, but at the same time I was often self-conscious, because I kept having to tug at a strapless bra or make sure my skirt was covering my rear.  Those clothes required a lot of effort, and they weren’t comfortable.  Now the clothes that make me feel sexy vary – one of my “sexier” outfits is a pair of cargo pants and a very butch black muscle top, while another is a thin v-neck yellow and brown artsy tank with wide straps and a pair of stretchy black gaucho pants.  I feel sexy when I’m put together, when my clothes fit well and feel good, and I’m smiling.  Sure, other girls may feel the same in clothes that made me uncomfortable, but if anyone pities me and tells me that I need to get some self confidence and dress the part, I’ll laugh.  I invite you to join me.

Book Reviews: Two Lesbian Sex Guides

28 05 2008

The Whole Lesbian Sex Book: A Passionate Guide for All of Us

by Felice Newman

I can’t rave enough about this book, really.  It’s extremely informative, with an excellent resource section, and best of all it’s inclusive.  You finish this sex manual feeling that there is no “wrong” way to go about lesbian sex, and that says a lot for the book in my opinion.  It’s trans and kink inclusive, and addresses issues such as sex with a disability, sex during depression, and safer sex in a comprehensive way that few guides tackle.  I thought that there was really nothing new to learn about lesbian sex, despite my very limited experience.  It seemed fairly straightforward to me, but this book gave me some ideas I’d never really considered.  I especially like how some of the anatomical myths are debunked – I had no idea that I was so confused about my own anatomy until I read the first couple of chapters.  I ended up grabbing a flashlight and mirror for the first time and was a bit amazed about how confused I’d been.  I highly recommend this guide for anyone looking for a comprehensive, straightforward, unapologetic look at lesbian sex.  Also, I wanted to note that Newman has asked me to help spread the word about a study she’s doing in preparing for a new sex guide that looks very interesting.  The message itself is a bit long to repost, but if you’re interested just e-mail me at judithavory@gmail.com and I’ll send you the whole thing.  She’s looking for female couples who have been together five or more years and have a satisfying sex life on the whole.  It’s very inclusive – poly, trans, bisexual, etc, are welcome to participate.  Let me know if you want the details.

On Our Backs Guide to Lesbian Sex

edited by Diana Cage

I have mixed feelings about this book.  I found some of the articles really interesting – it’s basically a compendium of articles from old issues of the magazine, arranged by topic – but I also found that some of them could be a bit too strongly opinionated for my taste.  One article, for example, on shaving, speaks in a way that makes me feel guilty or embarrassed for being a hairy girl who has no interest in shaving.  There isn’t a whole lot of “whatever you want is fine” in this book.  That said, there are a wide range of perspectives and some of the interviews, especially, are quite fascinating.  I found the roundtable discussion on class particularly interesting.  I do think that the book, the images, and probably the magazine in general, are very butch-femme centric.  Someone noted in one of the articles that butch-butch spreads are the least popular in the magazine – most pictures are butch-femme or occasionally femme-femme.  That had a weirdly heterosexual connotation to it in my mind.  Does it really matter whether we’re butch or femme?  Aren’t we past that.  Apparently not, and I found that a little disconcerting.  I also found a lot of talk about butch-femme fantasies that seemed to me very much like the types of heterosexual relationships that irk me.  That said, if this is your cup of tea, I’m sure you’ll love the book.  There’s just something about prolonged discussion of cocksucking that makes me feel a little queasy.


It’s not just a gay thing. It’s a human thing.

15 05 2008

Bloggers Unite

I was thrilled when I heard about the “Bloggers Unite for Human Rights” event, because as you may have figured out, international human rights is kind of “my thing.”  I plan to have a long career as a human rights activist, and to keep writing and learning about human rights.  This semester, I took a seminar on international human rights law, and wrote a seventy-three page paper proposing an express non-discrimination principle based on sexual orientation in the application international human rights law.  Unfortunately, I can’t share the paper with you just yet, because I plan to condense and submit it to either a law journal or an essay prize, and then to expand it into a book, but I did want to talk a little bit about the intersection between gay rights and human rights, and why you should care.

Often, when social conservatives hear the words “gay rights,” I think they conjure up an idea of far out there, leftist, liberal, radical rights for gay people that necessarily conflict with and infringe on their own rights, whether those be social, cultural, religious, economic, privacy, or anything else.  The thing about human rights, though, is that they are universal.  Putting gay rights in a human rights framework really challenges us to think about our humanity, and our dignity.  It requires some tough questions.  I think in any context, thinking about human rights is a long process, and to really “get it,” you have to engage in some fundamental paradigm shifts.  When you picture “gay rights,” whether you’re gay or straight, conservative or liberal, you might imagine a catalogue of rights that are unique in some way, that only apply to people who fit into a particular “gay” box.  

There are some problems with this view, though, no matter where you’re coming from.  First, this model necessarily excludes some people.  It means you have to be “gay” (or lesbian, or bisexual) to have or fight for those rights.  When we base rights on status and identity, we require people to engage in a particular kind of identity formation.  This model is embraced by many in the West, but it causes problems when well-meaning activists import it to the developing world.  (More on that in a future post.)  It also doesn’t necessarily include everyone in the West.  There are plenty of Americans who are uncomfortable with certain labels, or those who don’t consider their sexual conduct a valid indicator of their sexual identity.  The “gay rights” model is also problematic politically, because it makes it easy to oppose.  You might think that gay rights are “special” rights, or that they necessarily mean that other people can’t have rights.  You might think that gay marriage, for example, harms the heterosexual marriage institution, or that affirmative action in employment means you’ll be out of a job.  It’s also easy to think of “gay rights” as being radical, liberal, Democratic, or opposed to Christianity.  I don’t agree with these arguments, but they exist, and they are something to which you constantly have to respond when using the “gay rights” model.

This is why I suggest human rights as an alternative.  One of the most important characteristics of human rights as a group is that they are universal.  Some may be more justiciable than others, certainly.  Some rights are labeled “aspirational,” meaning that people do all have a right to a certain thing, but due to limited resources, unsympathetic governments, or whatever else, they are denied that right at the moment.  Just because a right has being violated, even if it has always been violated, does not mean we do not have that right.  

When we think of these individual issues or rights claims (gay marriage, employment non-discrimination, right to privacy, etc), we must execute a mental shift.  If we think of these rights in universal terms, then we begin to realize that it is hypocritical to oppose them for others, but not for ourselves.  Discrimination is illogical.  John Rawls coined the term “veil of ignorance.”  This means that in thinking about rights, we consider ourselves from an initial position of ignorance about ourselves.  We imagine that we cannot see ourselves, and we know nothing about ourselves – we don’t know if we’re black, Muslim, gay, disabled, French, middle-aged, upper class, or anything else.  In this position, we necessarily would confer as many rights as possible without infringing upon the rights of others, because we don’t know where we’ll end up.  It would be stupid to deny rights to a certain class, if we might end up in that class.  

So take a moment to consider yourself in this position, completely ignorant as to your sexual orientation.  I think you’d be a little hesitant to differentiate between orientations as you dole out rights to individuals.  You wouldn’t want to limit rights for gay people, or straight people, for men who have sex with men, or women who have sex with women, for those who have sex with both sexes, or those who have sex only with the opposite sex.  You wouldn’t want to limit how people are allowed to express themselves, or associate with others.  You’d want to make sure everyone has as many rights as possible to preserve their own dignity – their own humanity – without harming others.

So the next time you hear about “gay rights” in the media or in the courtroom, in the school or in your workplace, try to frame them mentally in a different way.  Think about the right to marriage, for example.  If you’re straight, you wouldn’t be very happy if someone told you that you weren’t allowed to marry your opposite sex partner.  Or think about the right to privacy.  What if there were a law on the books that said (due to population control problems, for example) that men and women were not allowed to engage in procreative sex in their own homes?  Think about freedom of expression.  What if holding hands with your opposite sex partner, or wearing a t-shirt with a slogan such as “I like boys” if you’re female, exposed you to ridicule and violence?  You wouldn’t like it very much.

Those of us who are comfortably gay and have always advocated gay rights can also benefit from this perspective.  It isn’t just a new way to make the argument to those who don’t agree with us, but it’s also a way to be more inclusive.  We can stop thinking so hard about who belongs in the acronym, who can show up at the festival, who gets to enter the club, and whose rights we want to fight for.  Fighting for human rights means fighting for everyone.  It means identifying gaps where they exist, and filling them in.  Perhaps in a given society, people are targeted for same-sex conduct.  Maybe in another society, identity as gay or lesbian or some other moniker is what matters.  Perhaps it’s non-normative gender expression that results in violent responses or inadequate legal protection.  This strategy helps us open our eyes, and see what needs to be fixed, no matter how we personally identify.  It also gives an opportunity for coalition building.  Gay rights are human rights.  So are women’s rights.  So are rights for people regardless of race or ethnicity.  If we recognize that we are all fighting for the same thing, we can help each other recognize violations and work together to eradicate them.  

I hope if you’ve made it to the end of this post, you’ll have some time to think about and digest what I’ve said.  I’m always happy to engage in discussion, so feel free to comment.  And, if you’re interested in learning more, I highly recommend the following readings (please excuse the slightly incorrect citation format as I can’t do large and small caps here):

  • Carl F. Stychin, Same-Sex Sexualities and the Global Human Rights Discourse, 49 McGill L.J. 951 (2003).
  • Eric Heinze, Sexual Orientation: A Human Right (1995).
  • Hassan El Menyawi, Activism from the Closet: Gay Rights Strategising in Egypt, 7 Melb. J. Int’l L. 28 (2006). 
  • Laurence R. Helfer & Alice M. Miller, Sexual Orientation and Human Rights: Towards a United States and Transnational Jurisprudence, 9 Harv. Hum. Rts. J. 61 (1996).  
  • Robert Wintemute, From ‘Sex Rights’ to ‘Love Rights’: Partnership Rights as Human Rights, in Sex Rights: The Oxford Amnesty Lectures 2002 186 (Nicholas Bamforth, ed., 2005).
  • Sonia Katayal, Exporting Identity, 14 Yale J.L. & Feminism 97 (2002).
  • Vincent J. Samar, Gay-Rights as a Particular Instantiation of Human Rights, 64 Alb. L. Rev. 983 (2001).
Also, as a final note, not related at all to the sexual orientation side of things, I want to strongly, strongly recommend the book that got me really thinking about human rights in a global way.  It’s an account of one man’s experience, not at all academic, but extremely thoughtful, articulate, and thought-provoking.  In my case, it was life changing.  The book is Three Cups of Tea by David Oliver Relin and Greg Mortensen, and it’s quite seriously the best nine dollars you’ll ever spend.